THE CORPS AT THE CANYON

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The Civilian Conservation Corps’ Legacy at Grand Canyon National Park

Peter B. Hernandez graduated college in June of 1929 and stepped into the world filled with hope and the youthful exuberance that accompanies most college graduates. He was confident that industry would provide for him as it had for those that had come before and that despite the economy’s failings he would find a job. However, he and his fellow graduates faced increasing challenges as the economy shrank further and further into disrepair and jobs became scarce. Hernandez secured employment as a butcher, which he described as torturous, and he gradually sank into a state of hopelessness and insecurity as he struggled through the first years of the 1930s. His confidence in the future disappeared and he felt that he was wasting his youth on a “procession of failures [and] disappointments” in the face of ever growing economic misery. This all changed when Hernandez heard that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt planned to put young men to work for a new relief agency and he jumped at the opportunity. Hernandez left for the Grand Canyon to join Company 819 of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the spring of 1933; filled with hope, head held high, and ready to make his mark1.

Peter Hernandez and his fellow CCC enrollees embarked on a journey that altered the landscape of Grand Canyon National Park and left a legacy that stands to this day. As the country sank deeper into economic depression, Roosevelt realized his goal of using unemployed young men to further conservation efforts for the country. This served a dual purpose of combating the country's growing unemployment problems and bringing conservation to the public arena. The CCC succeeded in improving the quality of the land and the lives of men alike. Roosevelt used the CCC to improve National Parks and promote the conservation of public lands such as those completed at the Grand Canyon. Young men such as Hernandez, who enrolled in the CCC, engaged in diverse projects that achieved Roosevelt's goals of bringing conservation to the public consciousness and reshaped the country and the Grand Canyon's landscape.

When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929 the United States of America transitioned from the decade of decadence that was the Roaring Twenties to an era of economic misery and suffering known as the Great Depression. As the global economy ceased to function, consumer purchasing power declined and industries suffered. The losses of manufacturing and construction caused unemployment to skyrocket as millions of Americans found themselves out of work. The optimism that characterized the 1920s and the ideal of reaching the American dream were quickly lost in bread lines and relief rolls that swelled throughout the country.

President Herbert Hoover attempted to combat the growing economic problems by using the private sector and state governments to provide economic stimulus for the country but both proved inadequate for the job as the Depression worsened. Hoover faced a Congress hostile to his plans and he exacerbated the economic issues when he signed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which ground global trade to a halt and nullified any hopes of a quick end to the Depression2. Hoover’s inability to garner political support in Congress and the deepening depression made the results of the election of 1932 a forgone conclusion as he lost in a landslide to Roosevelt3.

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A CCC worker installs part of the trans-canyon telephone line.

Credit: Grand Canyon National Park


1 Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 819, Year 1933 Book, C.C.C. [Civilian Conservation Corps], Company 819, Grand Canyon, Arizona ('First Year of Camp 819, Roy Manson Keith'),1933, 25-27.

2 David M. Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People In Depression And War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 49-56.

3Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army: A History of The Civilian Conservation Corps 1933-1942 (Vermont: Perry H. Merrill, 1981), 2.

Roosevelt took office in 1933 faced with the daunting task of righting the American economy and ending the Depression as quickly as possible. He met these challenges head on in the first part of his administration with sweeping legislation to combat the problems facing the country. Roosevelt’s New Deal was designed to provide work for the unemployed and relief for those in need through a variety of agencies. It was with these goals in mind that Roosevelt called for the creation of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which was duly formed through the Emergency Conservation Work Act of 19334. The goal of the CCC was twofold. It removed unemployed young men from the streets by putting them to work which allowed them to provide for their dependants, while also promoting the conservation of American lands. The CCC would achieve these aims through a variety of projects. They built roads, fought forest fires, built dams, completed extensive reforestation projects, and completed any additional jobs that they were assigned5. These projects stemmed from Roosevelt’s experience and dedication to the conservation movement. 

Roosevelt was an ardent conservationist who fought for the conservation movement his entire political life and the CCC was driven by his determination6. While governor of New York, Roosevelt backed the conservation of state lands and even undertook extensive reforestation projects on his own estate. His previous experience in these areas and his belief in conservation were a prime factor in his desire to create the CCC. Deforestation and soil erosion took a terrible toll on the United States by the time Roosevelt came to office. At one point in time, 800 million acres of forests covered the country but by 1933 only 100 million acres of forests remained while three billion tons of the best soil had washed or blown away turning once fertile lands into dust bowls. Roosevelt knew that something had to be done to combat the destruction of the country’s resources and he saw a golden opportunity to use unemployed workers in this capacity as he combined hopeless young men with the land in order to save both7.

Roosevelt wanted to use the CCC for two goals relating to conservation; reforestation and soil conservation and state and national park improvements. These two areas combined Roosevelt’s Progressive Era beliefs in the efficient use of resources and broadened the goal of conservation to also include a concern for public health8. Roosevelt took these themes and expounded upon them on the campaign trail of 1932 arguing that conservation and relief work were the perfect companions to fight the Depression, going as far as outlining the basics of the CCC in his Democratic Party nomination speech9. Roosevelt realized that the American landscape had changed drastically since the country’s inception and that steps needed to be taken to combat this destruction of natural resources.


4Conrad L. Wirth, Parks, Politics and The People (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980), 69-75.

5E. Kay Kiefer and Paul E. Fellows, Hobnail Boots And Khaki Suits: A Brief Look At The Great Depression and The Civilian Conservation Corps As Seen Through The Eyes Of Those Who Were There (Chicago: Adams Press, 1983), 25-27.

6John A. Salmond, The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1967), 6-7.

7Salmond, Civilian Conservation Corps, 4.

8Neil M. Maher, Nature's New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

9Paul A. Lawrence, Remembering the CCC (California: PAL Press, 1983), 7.

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A CCC worker installs part of the trans-canyon telephone line.

Credit: Grand Canyon National Park

Before the ink dried on the bill, government officials finalized the CCC’s organization and called up the first enrollees. The CCC was controlled by four departments (Department of the Interior, Department of War, Department of Labor, and Department of Agriculture) all of whom performed different roles within the CCC. The Department of Labor was in charge of administering the enrollment of the youth while the Department of War handled the building and administering of camps as well as the organization of enrollees into these camps. These were the first groups that enrollees dealt with as they were chosen and sent to forts throughout the country. Upon arrival at a nearby fort in the state that they worked in, enrollees received medical examinations and provisions before being assigned to a CCC Company. Finally, the Department of the Interior oversaw CCC projects at National Parks and Monuments while the Department of Agriculture was in charge of the US Forest Services projects10. These last two groups represented Roosevelt’s aim of using the CCC for reforestation and improvement of public lands. It is within this framework that the first young men enrolled in the CCC. Some were sent to the Grand Canyon to put Roosevelt’s plan into action.

In May of 1933 the first CCC Company arrived at the Grand Canyon to complete improvements and promote the conservation of the area and when the program was terminated in 1942, they left behind a remarkable legacy. They constructed buildings, improved roads, created trails, worked on fire prevention, engaged in pest control, and even worked on archaeology projects11. These jobs followed Roosevelt’s plan for the CCC by promoting the conservation of the land as well as making much needed improvements to Grand Canyon National Park. During the life of the CCC, these young men played an integral part in reshaping the landscape of the Grand Canyon to realize the goals set for the CCC.

The first CCC enrollees to reach the Grand Canyon were comprised of men who assembled and went through training at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona. After a brief two week introduction into the expectation of what life was like in the CCC, the commanding officer assigned the men their company number and they departed by train for their camps at the Grand Canyon12. Peter Hernandez was filled with excitement as he began his journey, proclaiming “ever onward, ever upward, unto the infinite, so says the abounding irresistable [sic] spirit of youth.” For the first time since graduation he found hope through the CCC13. One of the first CCC camps built and occupied was a tent camp constructed at Neil Springs on the North Rim of the Canyon in the Kaibab Forest for Company 818. This camp was used during the summer months while the company spent their winters at the bottom of the Canyon near the mouth of Bright Angel Creek14. Having a camp at both sites allowed the company to work on projects throughout the year as their winter quarters were perfectly suited for inner canyon work and their summer quarters allowed them the opportunity to work on the rim. While Company 818 had the North Rim covered, Company 819 was created and a camp was built on the South Rim to handle the projects designated for completion near Grand Canyon Village. With the creation of these two companies, the CCC had both rims of the canyon covered and the enrollees began working on their conservation projects.


10Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army, 7-8

11“Project News,” Call of the Kaibab, September 1936.

12Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 819, Year 1933 Book, 4.

13Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 819, Year 1933, 25.

14Louis Lester Purvis, The Ace in the Hole :A Brief History of Company 818 of the Civilian Conservation Corps (Georgia: Brentwood Christian Press, 1989), 20-23.

When Company 819 reached its quota of around 200 men, Captain Dill, the company commander, assigned leadership roles and split enrollees into units. Each of the 25 men chosen to lead were put in charge of 10 man units and were responsible for the health and discipline of their assigned enrollees. Aside from volunteering for specific jobs, the enrollees worked their assigned projects with their work detail. With the company organization completed, the enrollees began work on their projects for the National Park Service and the US Forest Service15. They built sewer lines, ran telephone lines, and engaged in many improvements around Grand Canyon Village. As this is the most visited and developed area of the Grand Canyon, the legacy of the CCC is easily seen in the stone wall that connects the Bright Angel Lodge and the El Tovar Hotel or in the Community Building that still stands today. Company 819 existed for the length of the CCC itself and played an important role in modifying the landscape of the Grand Canyon village to what is seen today16.

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A CCC worker installs part of the trans-canyon telephone line.

Credit: Grand Canyon National Park

On the opposite rim, as well as within the canyon itself, Company 818 labored extensively to bring about incredible improvements to the Grand Canyon. Working from their camp at the mouth of Bright Angel Creek, Company 818 built the Colorado River Trail from the end of Bright Angel Trail to a location on the Kaibab Trail roughly two miles away17. While the distance was not great, the trail turned out to be one of the most dangerous trails in the Grand Canyon to build as it was carved out of a cliff side for its entire length. Enrollees faced cliffs between 40 and 500 feet above the river and few warning signs before the cliff would crumble beneath the men’s feet. They used jackhammers and explosive powder on the sides of the cliffs to construct the trail18. The mend tied themselves to ropes thrown over the edge and did a large amount of work hung precariously over the side19. The men building this trail faced extreme hardships and a number of them were injured on the job but there were no fatalities during the entire construction. The trail took two winters to complete but when it was finished, tourists were given another option for cross canyon trips. While work was being completed on the Colorado River Trail, Company 818 and 819 also did extensive work on improving the Kaibab Trail.

The maintenance of the Kaibab Trail was another one of the most important projects that the CCC completed. The trail was the only cross canyon trail that had been maintained to any degree prior to the CCC’s arrival and the supply line that it created was vital for Company 818. The trail was sectioned off into a north and south trail with 819 being in charge of the south and 818 completing work on the north. The team from 818 was comprised of 18 men who walked almost 12 miles a day to their work site on the trail20. Both companies worked diligently to complete this process by clearing the trail of debris, fixing rock walls, and providing any further improvements that were necessary22. Their work paid off as the trail was eventually maintained over its entire distance and continues to serve cross canyon traffic21.


15Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 819, Year 1933 Book, 5-6.

16Robert Audretsch, “Grand Canyon Civilian Conservation Corps,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/grca/historyculture/ccc.htm [accessed February 18, 2009].

17National Park Service photo, Company 818’s Camp at Bright Angel Creek, circa 1935.

18Purvis, The Ace, 98-100.

19National Park Service photograph, CCC enrollee working with a jackhammer on Colorado River Trail Construction, circa 1936.

20Purvis, The Ace, 96-113.

21National Park Service photograph, CCC working on clearing Kaibab Trail of debris, December 1935.

One of the greatest achievements completed by the CCC was the creation of the trans-Canyon telephone line. This project harnessed the power of the CCC to create a communication network between the two canyon rims that exists to this day. The first telephone line connecting the two rims of the canyon was built in 1922 and was inadequate as a communication tool. The line only allowed one conversation at a time and in an area where communication was already difficult, the need to improve the situation was great. The CCC planned the new telephone line to connect the Bright Angel Lodge on the south rim with a ranger building located on the north to allow communication between the rims in case of an emergency. Company 847 completed construction on the south rim, building the line from Bright Angel Lodge to the foot of Bright Angel trail while Company 818 built the line from Pipe Creek to a point above Phantom Ranch, and then along the Kaibab Trail23.

Construction of the telephone line was far from easy for the CCC. The terrain was difficult to navigate and in some instances, poles were driven into steep cliff sides to run the line24. Construction began in the inner gorge and the high cliffs made it difficult to find appropriate lines for construction. When work began in the Bright Angel Canyon and up the Redwall Limestone cliff the work became more treacherous. Still, the 16 man crew labored without incident25. The men worked predominately in pairs to put in posts and string the lines as they maneuvered the rough environments to find the optimal points for the line26. Through the CCC’s hard work and determination, the trans-canyon telephone line was completed in a little over a year and it was one of the most beneficial contributions that the CCC made to the Grand Canyon National Park as it made easy communication a reality27.

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A CCC worker installs part of the trans-canyon telephone line.

Credit: Grand Canyon National Park

It is impossible to deny the impact that the CCC had on shaping the landscape of the Grand Canyon National Park. The trails, roads, and buildings that they created are still used today by visitors of the Grand Canyon and campers at Phantom Ranch are even sleeping on the spot where Company 818’s camp existed. While the labor of the CCC was used during the worst years of the depression to put men to work, it also greatly altered the places that they touched. The Grand Canyon was the recipient of many improvements and conservation efforts that may have never been completed had it not been for the CCC. The CCC was terminated in 1942 but the work they completed at the canyon lives on as a testament to its legacy and to those of the 3.5 million men28 who served in “Roosevelt’s Forest Army,” doing conservation work across the nation29.


22Purvis, The Ace, 95-96.

23Purvis, The Ace, 87.

24National Park Service photograph, Silhouette of CCC enrollee on cliff face working on telephone line and post, circa 1935.

25Purvis, The Ace, 91-93.

26National Park Service photograph, Two CCC enrollees working on line near anchor point. 

27Purvis, The Ace, 95.

28Kiefer and Fellows, Hobnail, 27.

29Merrill, Roosevelt’s.

In the end, the CCC was one of the most popular New Deal agencies. Not only did it give unemployed men the ability to provide for their families, it also shaped the American landscape through the conservation and improvements of its lands. The creation of the CCC brought conservation experience into the lives of millions and expanded its popularity. The New Deal came between the earlier Progressive Era conservation movement and the later environmental movement that began in the 1960s. As historian Neil Maher has persuasively argued, the CCC linked these movements in powerful ways. The landscapes that the CCC created and altered transformed the idea of conservation into something more. For the first time, issues of conservation seeped into the national conscience and were debated by all levels of society30.

Roosevelt was successful with his goals for the CCC. Not only was he able to promote conservation but he was also able to impact the lives of those who enrolled in the CCC. Enrollees of the CCC were not just put to work; they were given the opportunity to better themselves through a wide range of activities. Camp life offered recreation, education, and the chance to learn new skills31. Troy Crosier, a CCC enrollee from Illinois, used the soil conservation skills that he learned to farm his own land after his stint in the CCC. John Meszaros on the other hand recognized that the CCC played an important part in keeping him out of jail as well as instilling in him the desire to take pride in the things that he accomplished. Sentiments such as these can be found throughout the stories of CCC alumni who found the experience to be life altering32. For Peter Hernandez, he felt that he became “a better man . . . because of the months in the service of the Civilian Conservation Corps . . . more self confident, more cooperative . . . [my] duty to society more clearly defined."33 All of these played into Roosevelt’s belief in saving the man through saving nature34.

Peter Hernandez entered the CCC struggling to find his place in the world. The first few years of the 1930s left him disenchanted and ready for a change, which he was found through the CCC. He recognized that life in the CCC made him a better man. He learned discipline and initiative and became what he considered a “better citizen.” The CCC gave him the opportunity to work in a time when jobs were lacking and more importantly it provided an experience that shaped who he became. The CCC allowed Hernandez to find self-respect and leave the Grand Canyon and himself better than when he arrived35.


30Maher, Nature’s, 198-214.

31Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 819, Year 1934 Book, C.C.C. [Civilian Conservation Corps], Company 819, Grand Canyon, Arizona ('Second Year of 819; this Year I Lived here. Roy Manson Keith') 1934, 30-32.

32Kiefer and Fellows, Hobnail, 91-142.

33Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 819, Year 1933, 26.

34Maher, Nature’s.

35Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 819, Year 1933, 25-27.


written by Peter Trentacoste


Primary Source Material:

  • Civilian Conservation Corps, Company 819. Year 1933 Book, C.C.C. [Civilian Conservation Corps], Company 819, Grand Canyon, Arizona ('First Year of Camp 819, Roy Manson Keith') 1933
  • First hand accounts of daily life, recreation, and work completed by Company 819 of the CCC. Contains information pertaining to all aspects of CCC camp life.

  • ———. Year 1934 Book, C.C.C. [Civilian Conservation Corps], Company 819, Grand Canyon, Arizona ('Second Year of 819; this Year I Lived here. Roy Manson Keith') 1934.

  • Primary source document concerning the second year of Company 819 at the Grand Canyon.

  • Kiefer, E. Kay and Paul E. Fellows. Hobnail Boots and Khaki Suits : A Brief Look at the Great Depression and the Civilian Conservation Corps as seen through the Eyes of those Who were there. Chicago: Adams Press, 1983.

  • General overview of CCC history and many primary sources about life and times in the camps. Contains a wide cross section of first hand accounts as they run the full gamut of CCC experiences and locations.

  • Lawrence, Paul A. Remembering the CCC. Positive Health Library. 1st ed. San Anselmo, CA: PAL Press, 1983.

    First hand account of life in the CCC. Contains pictures and drawings of what one could expect to encounter while a member of the CCC. Contains information about work, recreation, and daily life all from one who lived it.

  • “Project News.” Call of the Kaibab. September 1936.

    Camp newspaper for Company 818 during September of 1936. Provides first hand writing of what projects they were involved in and the general happenings of the camp and the company in the work that they did.

  • Purvis, Louis Lester. The Ace in the Hole : A Brief History of Company 818 of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Columbus, Ga.: Brentwood Christian Press, 1989.

    First hand account of life in Company 818 of the CCC. Contains a general introduction and history of the CCC before relating what life was like as a member of Company 818. Explains projects undertaken by the Company as well as leisure activities and daily life.

Secondary Source Material:

  • Audretsch, Robert. “Grand Canyon Civilian Conservation Corps.” National Park Service http://www.nps.gov/grca/historyculture/ccc.htm [accessed February 18, 2009].

    General information about the CCC from the NPS. Brief overview of completed projects and companies involved at GC.

  • Kennedy, David M. Freedom From Fear: The American People In Depression And War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    History of the United States from Great Depression through World War II. Has information regarding Hoover’s administration and in depth look at the New Deal.

  • Maher, Neil M. Nature's New Deal :The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    In depth analysis of the CCC and government policy concerning conservation. Predominately focuses on the relationship between the government and its shifting policy on nature.

  • Merrill, Perry Henry. Roosevelt's Forest Army :A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942. Montpelier, Vt.: P.H. Merrill, 1981.

    General overview of the history of the CCC. Breaks down agency information into numbers based state by state. Lists camps, expenditures, work completed and other miscellaneous information regarding every state's CCC contingents.

  • Otis, Alison T., United States, and Civilian Conservation Corps. The Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-42. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, 1986.

    Breakdown of the relationship between the CCC and the USFS. Has a plethora of examples concerning the type of work that the CCC engaged in while active. Contains many pictures of these works.

  • Salmond, John A. The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942;a New Deal Case Study. Duke Historical Publications. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1967.

    Full history of the CCC and its impact as both a conservation movement and New Deal agency. Provides insight as to why the CCC was created and the ultimate goal of the agency.

  • Wirth, Conrad L. Parks, Politics and the People. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

    History of the National Park system. Contains information regarding the formation of the CCC and the specific bills regarding its creation.